The more I see of The Lord of the Rings Return to Moria during a hands-off demo at Gamescom 2023, the more convinced I am that this will be the next game I play with my dad. I have my dad to thank for my lifelong love of both The Lord of the Rings and video games, and the upcoming survival crafting adventure from developer Free Range Games marries the two in a new experience that puts dwarves front and center. As the first licensed game to take place in the Fourth Age of Middle-earth, after the destruction of the ring, Return to Moria sees you play as dwarves who set out to reclaim their home below the Misty Mountains.
It's immediately clear from speaking to director Jon-Paul Dumont that so much research and attention to detail has been put into bringing this time frame to life, with famous landmark areas in the mines, and nods to the events of the Fellowship that make my heart sing as a Tolkein fan. Every effort has also been put into making it "the dwarfiest it can be", which factors into what makes Return to Moria's take on survival and crafting different.
"Most survival games, you are managing something; you're managing your hunger and your energy and you just sleep and a lot of those things", Dumont says. "In our game, part of the thing that makes it unique that we've added in is that you need to manage your noise and your light. So light in particular, the dwarves have a drive to bring light to the dark places of the world. And so that means in our game that could be lighting a roaring fire, that could be rebuilding a giant crystal lamp, or just making sure you've got a torch with you – because if you're in darkness for too long, it's not a good thing for them."
An unexpected journey
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My dad and I have been playing Deep Rock Galactic recently, meaning I've spent some time in the throes of space dwarf fantasy of late. It's why I delight in discovering that the dwarves of The Lord of the Rings Return to Moria live up to their name and Tolkien's vision of them as lovers of the stone and craftsmanship. When Dumont begins to mine for example, his bearded character begins to hum a tune. If other players join in, the dwarves will all hum together and start harmonizing. Drinking is also another beloved pastime here, and you can also make your own beer, and cheer or dance a little jig when you want to take a break from venturing through Moria. You can of course go it alone, but these little touches really add to the co-operate multiplayer side of the game, and just like Deep Rock Galactic, I'm sure my dad and I will absolutely make the most of these features.
In the mines, you'll be facing orcs and other enemies besides, with Dumont explaining that there are eight different kinds of weapons that you can make and use. Certain weapons will be better against larger or smaller groups of enemies, and you can also dodge and roll out of the way as you fight. If you use a two-handed weapon, having a pal alongside you to carry a light source such as a torch will certainly come in handy, too. As we go through the session, I see how you can encounter outposts that can be home to some story lore, but they also make for quick makeshift bases when you just want to rest. A hearth acts as the center of any base, and once you place one down, the radius around it is then yours to shape, build, and change with your trusty pickaxe.
In fact, if you want to, as Dumont explains, you can polish up the whole of Moria if you want to and restore it back to its former glory, or build up your own bases. While you will come across fixed locations that Lord of the Rings fans will likely recognize, the mines themselves are procedurally generated.
"The game is procedurally generated, which we know means something different to every team in games," Dumont says. "For us, it means the main landmarks that you would expect out of Moria, the bridge of Khazad-dûm, the crossroads where Gandalf was lost, the glowing door, those are in the places that they would be. And then everything in between is scrambled, regenerated, repopulated and moved around so that not only could you play it again, but also if one of your friends gets ahead of you and they join your game, they won't know where everything is."
"Tolkien wrote about the one point when all of the clans come together, and finally take back Moria. And that just all of a sudden was like, okay, we know about dwarves. Most people know about Moria. It felt like a good fit."
If you venture out into the mines for too long and make a lot of noise, you might attract a horde, with waves of enemies coming at you to add to the challenge of survival. After taking on one such horde, Dumont returns to the safety of a well built base, which is home to armor stands, decorative items to give it that homely touch, and an oven where you can cook food to eat in the base and take away with you. The dishes you can make are plucked right out of the books of Tolkien, which is just yet another example of the attention to detail. When it comes to bringing to life a game set in Middle-earth, there's always going to be a certain amount of pressure with so much love out there for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
But just from this short hands-off demo alone and speaking with Dumont and CEO Christopher Scholz, I can see that so much research has gone into The Lord of the Rings Return to Moria:
"We were like, 'Okay, it's gotta be dwarves;. And then we wanted to think about what was the location that was going to matter? And what would be a story that would have stakes," Dumont says. "And so Professor Tolkien wrote about the one point when all of the clans come together, and finally take back Moria. And that just all of a sudden was like, okay, we know about dwarves. Most people know about Moria. It felt like a good fit. And so then we had to start going through, what did he write about that time period? And how can we extrapolate that into what's going on now in the story."
From working with three different lore experts to a linguist proficient in the language of the dwarves, the team also collaborated with Corey Olson, who's known as the Tolkien Professor, to help with the tone and accuracy of the story in the game. Outside of consulting, the team also read a lot and even had a weekly book club to feed their knowledge on the world.
As the session winds down, I can't help but be impressed by how much thought has evidently gone into Return to Moria. Dwarves really do feel like the perfect fit for a survival crafting adventure, and Moria promises to be an interesting setting – especially during the Fourth Age . I'm looking forward to seeing what's in store and hopefully this will become the next game my dad and I bond over.
The Lord of the Rings Return to Moria is set to release on PC via the Epic Games Store and PS5 on October 24, 2023 and Xbox Series X/S early 2024.